sustainability

Dry, arid and remote farming regions are vulnerable to water shortages, but scientists are working on a promising new solution.

Photo by Amir Shahabi on Unsplash

California has been plagued by perilous droughts for decades. Freshwater shortages have sparked raging wildfires and killed fruit and vegetable crops. And California is not alone in its danger of running out of water for farming; parts of the Southwest, including Texas, are battling severe drought conditions, according to the North American Drought Monitor. These two states account for 316,900 of the 2 million total U.S. farms.

But even as farming becomes more vulnerable due to water shortages, the world's demand for food is projected to increase 70 percent by 2050, according to Guihua Yu, an associate professor of materials science at The University of Texas at Austin.

"Water is the most limiting natural resource for agricultural production because of the freshwater shortage and enormous water consumption needed for irrigation," Yu said.

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Katie Navarra
Katie Navarra is an award-winning writer who covers education, horses, farming, and business/leadership.

A new edible spoon is durable enough for mass market assembly and is already alleviating consumer waste.

(Photo credit: Max Milla and Janani/IncrEDIBLESpoon)


Sure, you may bring a reusable straw when you go out to eat. But what about digesting your silverware at the restaurant? The future is already here.

Edible cutlery feels like a natural progression post-reusable straw.

Air New Zealand just added the new edible coffee cup Twiice into their in-flight service. Made from vanilla, wheat flower, sugar, egg and vanilla essence, the Twiice cups will be standard issue for the international airline.

On the ground, the new, award-winning startup IncrEDIBLESpoon has shipped more than a quarter million edible scoopers. The spoons are all-natural, vegan, and made from wheat, oat, corn, chickpea and barley.

The technological breakthrough is in creating tasty, mass-market material durable enough for delivery in an assembly line environment like airplane service, as well as stable enough to hold a hot cup of coffee or a freezing scoop of ice cream. Twiice cups can last several hours after hot coffee is added, while IncrEDIBLESpoon cutlery holds up to 45 minutes.

"We already caught the interest of a couple major ice cream chains," says Dinesh Tadepalli, co-founder of the IncrEDIBLESpoon parent company Planeteer. "If all goes well, one of them will test out our spoons at their scoop shop early this year."

Next Up

Edible cutlery feels like a natural progression post-reusable straw. And more is already on the menu.

The coffee cup company Twiice is already planning on expanding. Co-founder Jamie Cashmore says other serving items are coming later this year.

IncrEDIBLESpoon is also getting into more utensils. "We plan to mass produce the complete set by year's end: Edible straws, edible forks and edible coffee stirrers," Tadepalli says.

Most notably, Twiice's partner Air New Zealand sees the coffee cup as just a start to other sustainable solutions. The airline estimates it currently serves eight million cups of coffee annually. It's even suggesting customers bring their own reusable cup to the plane – though that isn't as ergonomic nor as attractive as eating everything you are served.

Open Questions

Making everything edible has a few challenges. First is cultural acceptance: With respect to current success, changing eating habits will require going beyond eco-focused and curious eaters.

Second, it's unclear if the short-term economics will add up in favor of airline carriers and other companies. Like alternative fuel, organizations will be more likely to adopt new science when it doesn't require a retrofitting or expensive change to their current business model – even if it does create long-term benefits.

The changes will likely be lopsided, influencing cultures at different times. Airplanes are a great start, as passengers are a captive audience interested in removing waste as soon as possible.

"Imagine eating a black pepper spoon after your soup or a chocolate spoon after your ice cream?"

We can expect edible cutlery to make an easier impact with certain cultures or foods. For instance, injera, the spongy Ethiopian bread, has served as an African plate of sorts for years. It makes sense that IncrEDIBLESpoon's four flavors, Salt, Masala, Spinach and Root, all fit in another bread-as-plate friendly culture: Indian.

Coffee and desserts sound like a good bet for now, though, especially for foodies. "People are curious to try edible spoons as they never heard or experienced them before," Tadepalli says. "Imagine eating a black pepper spoon after your soup or a chocolate spoon after your ice cream?"

Damon Brown
Damon Brown co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr. Now he helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional entrepreneurs bloom. He is author of the TED book "Our Virtual Shadow" and, most recently, the best-selling "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur" series. Join his creative community at www.JoinDamon.me.
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Algae in the Mediterranean sea.

(© damedias/Adobe)


Was your favorite beach closed this summer? Algae blooms are becoming increasingly the reason to blame and, as the climate heats up, scientists say we can expect more of the warm water-loving blue-green algae to grow.

"We have removed a significant development barrier to make algal biofuel production more efficient and smarter."

Oddly enough, the pesky growth could help fuel our carbon-friendly options.

This year, the University of Utah scientists discovered a faster way to turn algae into fuel. Algae is filled with lipids that we can feed our energy-hungry diesel engines. The problem is extracting the lipids, which usually requires more energy to transform than the actual energy we'd get – not achieving what scientists call "energy parity."

But now, the University of Utah team has discovered a new mix that is more efficient and much faster. We can now extract more power from algae with less waste materials after the fact. Paper co-author Dr. Leonard Pease says, "We have removed a significant development barrier to make algal biofuel production more efficient and smarter. Our method puts us much closer to creating biofuels energy parity than we were before."

Next Up

Algae has a lot going for it as an alternative fuel source. It grows fast and easily, absorbs carbon dioxide, does not compete with food crops for land, and could produce up to 60 times more oil than standard land-based energy crops, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Yet the costs of algal biofuel production are still expensive for now.

According to Science Daily, only about five percent of total primary energy use in the United States came from algae and other biomass forms. By making the process more efficient, America and other nations could potentially begin relying on more plentiful resources – which, ironically, are more common now because of climate change.

Algae fuel efficiency is already a proven concept. A decade ago, Continental Airlines completed a 90-minute Boeing 737-800 flight with one engine split between biofuel and aircraft fuel. The biofuel was straight from algae. (Other flights were done based on nut fuel and other alternative sources.) The commercial airplane required no modification to the engine and the biofuel itself exceeded the standards of traditional jet fuel.

The problem, as noted at the time, is that biofuels derived from algae had yet to be proven as "commercially competitive."

The University of Utah's discovery could mean cheaper processing. At this point, it is less about if it works and more about if it is a practical alternative.

However, it's unclear how long it will take for algae to become more mainstream, if ever.

Open Questions

Higher efficiency and simpler transformations could mean lower prices and more business access. However, it's unclear how long it will take for algae to become more mainstream, if ever. The algae biofuel worked great for a relatively sophisticated Boeing 737 engine, but your family car, the cross-country delivery trucks and other less powerful machines may need to be modified – and that means the industry-at-large would have to revise their products in order to support the change.

Future-focused groups are already looking at how algae can fuel our space programs, especially if it is more renewable, safe and, potentially, cheaper than our traditional fuel choices. But first, it is worth waiting and seeing if corporations and, later, citizens are willing to take the plunge.

Damon Brown
Damon Brown co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr. Now he helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional entrepreneurs bloom. He is author of the TED book "Our Virtual Shadow" and, most recently, the best-selling "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur" series. Join his creative community at www.JoinDamon.me.

Lab-grown insect meat could be the protein source of the future.

(© alfa27/Adobe)


Agriculture in the 21st century is not as simple as it once was. With a population seven billion strong, a climate in crisis, and sustainability in farming practices on everyone's radar, figuring out how to feed the masses without destroying the Earth is a pressing concern.

Tufts scientists argue that insect cells may be better suited to lab-created meat protein than traditional farm animal cells.

In addition to low-emission cows and drone pollinators, there's a promising new solution on the table. How does "lab-grown insect meat" grab you?

Writing in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, researchers at Tufts University say insects that are fed plants and genetically modified for maximum growth, nutrition, and flavor could be the best, greenest alternative to our current livestock farming practices. This lab-grown protein source could produce high volume, nutritious food without the massive resources required for traditional animal agriculture.

"Due to the environmental, public health, and animal welfare concerns associated with our current livestock system, it is vital to develop more sustainable food production methods," says lead author Natalie Rubio. Could insect meat be the key?

Next Up

New sustainable food production includes what's called "cellular agriculture," an emerging industry and field of study in which meat and dairy are produced via cells in a lab instead of whole animals. So far, scientists have primarily focused on bovine, porcine, and avian cells to create this "cultured meat."

But the Tufts scientists argue that insect cells may be better suited to lab-created meat protein than traditional farm animal cells.

"Compared to cultured mammalian, avian, and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen, and osmolarity conditions," reports Rubio.

"Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for biomanufacturing of insecticides, drugs, and vaccines," she adds.

They still have some details to hash out, however, including how to make cultured insect meat more like the steak and chicken we're all familiar with.

"Despite this immense potential, cultured insect meat isn't ready for consumption," says Rubio. "Research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling development of insect cells into muscle and fat, and combining these in 3D cultures with a meat-like texture." They are currently experimenting with mushroom-derived fiber to tackle the latter.

People would still be able to eat meat—it would just come from a different source.

Open Questions

As the report points out, one thing that makes cellular agriculture an attractive alternative to high-density animal farming is that it doesn't require consumers to change their behaviors. People would still be able to eat meat—it would just come from a different source.

But the big question remains: How will lab-grown insect meat taste? Will the buggers really taste as good as burgers?

And, of course, there's the "ew" factor. Meat alternatives have proven to work for some people—Tofurky is still in business, after all—but it may be a hard sell to get the masses to jump on board with eating bugs. Consuming creepy crawlies sounds simply unpalatable to many, and the term "lab-grown, cellular insect meat" doesn't help much. Perhaps an entirely new nomenclature is in order.

Another question is whether or not folks will trust such scientifically-created food. People already use the term "frankenfood" to refer to genetic modification -- even though the vast majority of the corn and soybeans planted in the U.S. today are genetically engineered, and other major crops with GM varieties include potatoes, apples, squash, and papayas. Still, combining GM technology with eating insects may be a hard sell.

However, we're all going to have to get used to trying new things if we want to leave a habitable home for our children. If a lab-grown bug burger can save the planet, maybe it's worth a shot.

Annie Reneau
Annie is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone.

On left, the fungus (the whitish, fluffy material) of the Fungi Mutarium growing within the agar cups and degrading the plastic (the black/gray material in the center).

(Paris Tsitsos for LIVIN Studio)


Between the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the news that over 90% of plastic isn't recycled, and the likely state of your personal trash can, it's clear that the world has a plastic problem.

Scientists around the world have continued to discover different types of fungus that can degrade specific types of plastic.

We now have 150 million tons of plastic in our oceans, according to estimates; by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish. And every new batch of trash compounds the issue: Plastic is notorious for its longevity and resistance to natural degradation.

The Lowdown

Enter the humble mushroom. In 2011, Yale students made headlines with the discovery of a fungus in Ecuador, Pestalotiopsis microspora, that has the ability to digest and break down polyurethane plastic, even in an air-free (anaerobic) environment—which might even make it effective at the bottom of landfills. Although the professor who led the research trip cautioned for moderate expectations, there's an undeniable appeal to the idea of a speedier, cleaner, side effect-free, and natural method of disposing of plastic.

A few years later, this particular application for fungus got a jolt of publicity from designer Katharina Unger, of LIVIN Studio, when she collaborated with the microbiology faculty at Utrecht University to create a project called the Fungi Mutarium. They used the mycelium—which is the threadlike, vegetative part of a mushroom—of two very common types of edible mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster mushrooms) and Schizophyllum commune (Split gill mushrooms). Over the course of a few months, the fungi fully degraded small pieces of plastic while growing around pods of edible agar. The result? In place of plastic, a small mycelium snack.

Other researchers have continued to tackle the subject. In 2017, scientist Sehroon Khan and his research team at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kunming, China discovered another biodegrading fungus in a landfill in Islamabad, Pakistan: Aspergillus tubingensis, which turns out to be capable of colonizing polyester polyurethane (PU) and breaking it down it into smaller pieces within the span of two months. (PU often shows up in the form of packing foam—the kind of thing you might find cushioning a microwave or a new TV.)

Next Up

Utrecht University has continued its research, and scientists around the world have continued to discover different types of fungus that can degrade different, specific types of plastic. Khan and his team alone have discovered around 50 more species since 2017. They are currently working on finding the optimal conditions of temperature and environment for each strain of fungus to do its work.

Their biggest problem is perhaps the most common obstacle in innovative scientific research: Cash. "We are developing these things for large-scale," Khan says. "But [it] needs a lot of funding to get to the real application of plastic waste." They plan to apply for a patent soon and to publish three new articles about their most recent research, which might help boost interest and secure more grants.

Is there a way to get the fungi to work faster and to process bigger batches?

Khan's team is working on the breakdown process at this point, but researchers who want to continue in Unger's model of an edible end product also need to figure out how to efficiently and properly prepare the plastic input. "The fungi is sensitive to infection from bacteria," Unger says—which could turn it into a destructive mold. "This is a challenge for industrialization—[the] sterilization of the materials, and making the fungi resistant, strong, and faster-growing, to allow for a commercial process."

Open Questions

Whether it's Khan's polyurethane-chomping fungus or the edible agar pods from the Fungi Mutarium, the biggest question is still about scale. Both projects took several months to fully degrade a small amount of plastic. That's much shorter than plastic's normal lifespan, but still won't be enough to keep up with the global production of plastic. Is there a way to get the fungi to work faster and to process bigger batches?

We'd also need to figure out where these plastic recyclers would live. Could individuals keep a small compost-like heap, feeding in their own plastic and harvesting the mushrooms? Or could this be a replacement for local recycling centers?

There are still only these few small experiments for reference. But taken together, they suggest a fascinating future for waste disposal: An army of mycelium chewing quietly and methodically through our plastic bags and foam coffee cups—and potentially even creating a new food source along the way. We could have our trash and eat it, too.

Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt is a writer and researcher from Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review and Popular Mechanics. Follow her on Twitter at @ehhilde.